Green v. County School Board of New Kent County

At issue in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) was whether a school board’s adoption of a “freedom of choice” plan for the purpose of desegregating a school system constituted adequate compliance with its responsibility to achieve a unitary racially nondiscriminatory school system, in accordance with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka I (1954). The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that when the board relied on a freedom-of-choice plan to effectuate the conversion of a segregated school system to a nonracial system, it was not objectionable. However, if there were other more reasonably available ways promising speedier and more effective conversion to a nonracial system, the Court declared that a freedom-of-choice plan would be unacceptable.

Facts of the Case

In Brown I (1954), the Supreme Court held that in public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place. Segregated educational facilities were found to be inherently unequal. In Brown II (1955), the Court gave lower courts the authority to fashion remedies connected with Brown to promote desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” In doing so, the Court allowed lower courts to settle individual complaints on a caseby- case basis and to maintain jurisdiction in disputes while school boards made efforts toward compliance with Brown.

At the time of Green, the commonwealth of Virginia had statutory and constitutional provisions mandating racial segregation in public schools in an effort to resist complying with Brown. New Kent County, Virginia, had a school system of only two schools. One school was a combined elementary and high school for White students, while the other was a combined elementary and high school for Black students.

Eleven years after Brown, the New Kent County School Board adopted a freedom-of-choice plan for desegregating the schools. Under the plan, each pupil, except those entering first and eighth grades, were given the opportunity to annually choose between the two schools. Students who did not make a choice were assigned to the schools they had previously attended. Under this plan, first and eighth graders were required to choose schools affirmatively.

The Court’s Ruling

In Green, the Supreme Court measured the effectiveness of the New Kent County School Board’s freedom-of-choice plan in achieving a racially nondiscriminatory school system as required under Brown. The Supreme Court held that these statutes and constitutional provisions violated the Constitution in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which was one of the four cases that was joined to become Brown I. More specifically, the Court held that the separate “White” and “Negro” school system in New Kent County was precisely the pattern of segregation that Brown I and II found unconstitutional. The Court pointed out that New Kent County’s dual system, having two separate, segregated schools, extended not just to the composition of student bodies at the two schools, but to every facet of school operations, including faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities.

The Court charged federal trial courts to address what had become known as the “Green factors”: segregation related to the physical condition of the school plant, the school transportation system, personnel, attendance areas, and admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis. The Court further ordered the revision of local laws and regulations in Virginia in order to resolve these problems.

The Supreme Court found that opening the doors of the former “White” school to Negro children and the doors of the “Negro” school to White children merely began the inquiry as to whether the New Kent County school board took adequate steps to abolish its dual, segregated system. Brown II called for a dismantling of well-entrenched dual systems, charging school boards with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert a racially discriminatory system to one that was nondiscriminatory and constitutional.

The Court decided that the adoption of a freedomof- choice plan in New Kent County was an intolerable delay. Further, the Court explained that the plan failed to provide meaningful change. The Court found that the burden was on the school board to come forward with a plan that realistically promised to work. The Court held that the freedom-of-choice plan, while not unconstitutional, was not an end in itself. The Court added that the freedom-of-choice plan was unconstitutional when it failed to result in a racially nondiscriminatory, unitary school system. The Court thus ordered the school board in New Kent County to formulate a new plan and to consider other efforts, such as zoning, which held greater promise of converting not merely to a system without “White” schools and “Negro” schools, but to a system of just schools.

Green continues to guide school boards to consider various factors when addressing issues related to desegregation. These factors include desegregation not only of students but also of staff, transportation, administration, and school buildings’ physical plants. Today, the Green factors are still relevant for school boards when evaluating whether they continue to comply with Brown I and Brown II.

Vivian Hopp Gordon

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education and Equal Educational Opportunities; School Boards

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